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Has history celebrated the wrong Singer?

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Published: 14 February 2020

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Was Isaac Bashevis’ older brother Israel Joshua Singer the better novelist?

FOR SCHOLARS OF YIDDISH, it’s hard to get past the roadblock of Isaac Bashevis Singer. When I was in graduate school, he constantly stood in my way, hovering between me and any decently literate person I met who asked what I was studying. “Yiddish literature?” well-meaning strangers would stammer at me, clearly disappointed by the lack of small talk this topic offered, until they would brighten and announce, “Oh, Isaac Bashevis Singer!”

Bashevis, as he’s known to Yiddish readers, is not merely the only Yiddish-language Nobel laureate. He’s also more or less the only Yiddish author whom English readers have ever heard of. This would be unremarkable—after all, few writers from any language become known in translation - except that Bashevis himself exploited this fact, presenting himself to English readers as the sole voice of a lost world.

The cost of Bashevis’ half-century-long domination of Yiddish literature for non-Yiddish readers is quite high, and includes not only a distorted view of the Yiddish-speaking world, but also the reputations of more than a few of his contemporaries whose work never achieved anything like his level of fame.

Here I’d like to make the case for a writer I regard as a much better novelist, Bashevis’ older brother Israel Joshua Singer, whose early death 76 years ago today in New York took him out of the competition. Exhibit A is the elder Singer’s masterpiece, his monumental novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, first serially published in 1934-1935.

FULL STORY My favourite Singer brother, IJ (Tablet)

Photo: Israel Joshua Singer (Illustration: Tablet; original photos: Library of Congress)

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